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The Case of the Constant Suicides by John Dickson Carr

I seem to be spending a reasonable amount of time nowadays in the company of JDC and his marvellous detective Dr. Gideon Fell; but I feel no guilt at all, as these books are Golden Age crime at their best, and such satisfying reads! I was casting about recently for something to read on the train during a short hop to London for a day out with my BFF, and ruing the fact that I didn’t have any of Dr. Fell’s adventures to hand, as that was what I fancied reading. However, a rummage amongst a pile of old green Penguins revealed that I *did* have one lurking, even if the title did sound like it should belong to a Perry Mason story! The first chapter seemed familiar when I picked the book up, which was a bit worrying till I remembered that I started the book once and then got distracted; so I was sorted for my train reading!

Isn’t that cover just wonderful???

“The Cast of the Constant Suicides” is, of course, a locked room murder; what else would you expect if you pick up a Carr? Published in 1941, and set in the early days of WW2, the book opens with Alan Campbell, a young professor of Scottish extraction, making his way by (slow and erratic) train up to the land of his ancestors. A distant relative, one Angus Campbell, has taken a fatal plunge from a tower in his remote Scottish castle, and so the solicitors have summoned all the remaining members of the family. Alan is happy to get away from London, and from an intellectual feud he’s been having with a fellow professor. However, an encounter en route with a distant cousin causes mixed emotions, and on arrival in the depths of Scotland they encounter Angus’s larger than life brother Colin as well as a strange American called Swan. Throw into the mix the local lawyer and a troubled insurance agent, along with the fearsome Aunt Elspat, and you have a wonderful cast of characters all ready to explore the complexities of the plot – and complex it is! Old Angus took out a new insurance policy (his third!) just a few days before his death, and all of his policies have a suicide clause. So if Angus threw himself from the window the policies are null and void. However, he must have done because he had locked himself inside the tower, and it’s inaccessible from outside. But why would any sane man take out such an insurance policy and then kill himself?

Yes, I know it’s not Scottish but it has a lovely tower!!

Fortunately, brother Colin has a friend who may help – Dr. Gideon Fell! The latter arrives post-haste from London and begins his investigations. However, there is plenty more skullduggery to come before we reach, rather breathlessly in my case, a very clever and satisfying conclusion. And en route we’ll have a hint of the supernatural (of course!), a little romance, plenty of a very strong whisky known as the Doom of the Campbells, all sorts of tortuous twists and turns in the plots, as well as plenty of humour!

“Constant Suicides…” was a wonderful read, and confirmed me in my belief that Carr really is one of the greats and that any of his books will be worth picking up. Here, we were actually presented with a number of locked-room problems, all ingenious, all seemingly impossible and all solved by the great Dr. Fell. Interestingly, the War was a discreet presence in the book; some parts of the mystery hinged on a particular war-time element; but perhaps because the action took place in the Scottish highlands, it never dominated.

JDC by Howard Coster

If I had to rate this book against the other Carrs I’ve read recently, I would have to say that it doesn’t quite reach the standard of those stories. That’s not to say that this one wasn’t entirely engrossing and enjoyable, because it was – it was quite impossible to put it down. But there was perhaps a little less darkness in it than in the other two books, and there was quite a lot of slapstick humour. I enjoyed the latter too, and I did wonder if Carr lightened his tone a little as the book came out in wartime and perhaps it was thought that the public needed this kind of distraction from the darkness of real life.

These are minor quibbles, however; Carr was obviously a master of his art and it’s quite clear I shall have to read any of his books I come across. Interestingly, my BFF tells me that she has one of his Carter Dickson titles that I loaned her some time back. I actually can’t recall that at all, but I shall look forward to having it back and reading it at some point in the future! :)))

 

The perfect locked-room mystery!

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The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr

Well, this wasn’t the book I was intending to read right now! I was in the middle of a short story collection (Cortazar) which I was alternating with an Elizabeth Bowen, when I stumbled across this lovely Golden Age crime novel for 99p in the Oxfam. How could I resist? And as it’s a busy time for me at the moment, in life and at work, it’s exactly the kind of book I needed.

John Dickson Carr is of course the king of the locked room mystery. Although not the creator of the genre (that honour belongs to Edgar Allan Poe, although “The Big Bow Murder” is held to be the originator of the classic tradition), he took it and made it his own, producing 23 novels featuring his detective Dr. Gideon Fell, all of which were variations on the theme. “The Hollow Man” is judged to be one of his best, and indeed was once voted the best example of its kind ever – so I was naturally keen to read it.

“The Hollow Man” features two apparently insoluble crimes; one man, Dr. Grimaud, dies in a locked room which really has no way in or out at all. The chimney is no help, there’s no secret passageway, the window is high and there’s untouched snow on the ground below and the roof above. Grimaud has been threatened in front of a group of his friends by Pierre Frey, an illusionist, who is murdered the same night and his assassination is even more peculiar. He’s shot in the middle of a street (delightfully, just round the corner from Persephone Books’ home, Lambs Conduit Street) with two witnesses who can swear there was no one else there, there are no tracks in the snow and the weapon is found next to the body. It seems as though the killer must indeed have been an invisible or hollow man, because even Gideon Fell is struggling to find a solution.

The household of Grimaud is a quirky and interesting one: there is his housekeeper, Mme Dumont; his fiery daughter Rosette; and the scholar Drayman who has some connection with Grimaud going back a long way. In fact, the story proves to have long roots, and Fell, together with his colleague Superintendent Hadley, will have to do much digging to get to the bottom of things.

THM is a fabulous, and sometimes quite chilling read. There is reference to dark deeds from the past which is really rather spooky, and hints of the supernatural. Fell is an excellent detective, the supporting cast a nice variety (including Rampole, an American friend of Fell’s, and his wife) and there’s loads of drama, twists and red herrings. The solution is fiendishly ingenious and I defy any reader to solve it – which is why I don’t want to say too much about the plot because to spoil this treasure of a book would be a pity.

Authot picture c. National Portrait Gallery

The book is hugely entertaining, and it’s also notorious for one particular section. Towards the end of the book Carr treats us to a chapter where Fell expounds on the whole subject of locked room mysteries, their different types and solutions, and even has his detective remind the other characters and the reader:

‘But, if you’re going to analyse impossible situations,’ interrupted Pettis, ‘why discuss detective fiction?’

‘Because,’ said the doctor, frankly, ‘we’re in a detective story, and we don’t fool the reader by pretending we’re not. Let’s not invent elaborate excuses to drag in a discussion of detective stories. Let’s candidly glory in the noblest pursuits possible to characters in a book.’

It’s a fascinating piece, and has apparently become something of a standard text to guide authors in the production of locked room mysteries!

So a wonderfully satisfying Golden Age read (and not bad for 99p). I read masses of green Penguins back in my 20s and I’m pretty sure Carr’s works were amongst them, though I can’t remember the titles. He was a prolific author; as well as his Fell stories, he produced numerous others under his own name and dozens as Carter Dickson. One of only two Americans admitted to the Detection Club, his books are obviously something special and this one one was so gripping I stayed up far too late at night as I really couldn’t put it down. Alas, I feel an urge coming on to read nothing but classic crime!!

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